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Magnet school expands North Fork options

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A school within a school will provide an option for families who desire Waldorf-inspired education for their children.

The North Fork School for Integrated Studies (NFSIS) is a compromise between the school district and proponents of a full-blown charter school that was twice denied approval by the Delta County Board of Education. The board's decision was affirmed by the Colorado Department of Education in March.

Out of that process came a desire to work together to serve the diverse needs of the North Fork Valley.

The charter school application was rejected because of concerns about enrollment, budget, facilities and whether the Waldorf philosophy would mesh with the expectation that all students demonstrate proficiency in the Colorado Academic Standards.

School superintendent Caryn Gibson said within a few short months, those concerns have been addressed and the minimum number of students has signed on.

The threshold was seven for each of the two classrooms. The current tally is nine for grades K-1-2 and 10 for grades 3-4.

A total of 24 students submitted intent to enroll forms with the school district. At a special work session on July 16, assistant superintendent Kurt Clay provided a breakdown. The district counted only the 19 students who are already living in the area. Of those, 12 are from the Vision Charter Academy or have been homeschooled. Five are from existing schools -- two from Paonia Elementary, two from Montessori and one from Hotchkiss K-8. Two students are new to the district.

(This fall, Vision Charter Academy will not be offering classes at the North Fork campus, but will give support for families that provide their own instruction.)

As for concerns that some schools will "lose," while others "gain," Gibson pointed out all are public school students in Delta County Joint School District #50. "They're all ours," she said.

NFSIS is described as "an arts-infused, holistic, integrated education designed to provide academic excellence through experiential learning."

Students will be housed in two unused classrooms at Paonia Elementary School, which eliminates concerns about facilities. It is hoped the program can be expanded to grades 5-6, a year at a time.

Principal Sam Cox assured school board members there is ample space at PES, and the additional students will bring PES close to previous enrollment levels.

As for budget, it has been agreed that pay for the highly qualified teachers in both classrooms will be based on enrollment. Districtwide class size guidelines set a minimum of 15 students per class at the elementary level, and only when enrollment reaches that level will NFSIS teachers receive full pay.

The two schools will share the same principal -- Sam Cox -- as well as P.E., art and special services.

Kindergarten is play-based, but as students move into first, second and third grades, they'll be introduced to the academic standards. Third grade students who take state assessments are expected to know and demonstrate the same knowledge as third graders across Colorado, but to alleviate staff concerns, PES test scores -- which have historically been excellent -- will stand on their own. Gibson said that was one of the major reasons NFSIS was designated a magnet school.

Assurances that NFSIS students will be held to the same standards as other students in Delta County are important to district administrators and board members, who recognize that students often move from one instructional program to another and back again for a variety of reasons.

In an effort to learn more about Waldorf-inspired education, Clay visited the Boulder County School for Integrated Studies (BCSIS), which he described as a public school that has followed much the same path as the NFSIS. Like BCSIS, NFSIS plans to integrate Waldorf instructional practices, but not the spiritual philosophies embraced by founder Rudolf Steiner. The emphasis on the "whole child" is not radically different from the approach taken throughout Delta County Joint School District, Clay said.

Later during the regular school board meeting, a formal vote on the magnet school was taken. Board member Tammy Smith said she was looking for some assurance that both sides are committed to a program that can flourish and grow.

NFSIS proponents agreed, noting the two sides have not always been "on the most friendly terms." Commitment and an open line of communication were voiced as high priorities for both parties.

Board member Jan Tuin cast the only dissenting vote, saying he has doubts but will support fully the decision of the board.

"I'm extremely proud of our school district for taking this stand," said NFSIS proponent Pat Frazier. "They've shown extreme compassion for a group of people who have been struggling to have this curriculum demonstrated with their children for many years. We're extremely grateful for this opportunity."

"This is one of those big events for Delta County Joint School District," Gibson said.

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